The Silenc/ing of Roger Haight, SJ
Cambridge, MA. Just after Christmas I splurged on-line, searching out at used book sites the seven volumes of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, his wonderful and extensive reflection on the aesthetic element in our theological and spiritual knowledge, our apprehension of the beautiful in our encounter with God. Since I had previously collected the five volumes of the Theo-drama and the three volumes of the Theo-logic (all in English, I confess), I now have the entirety of this grand work. I love pulling a volume off the shelf and reading what von Balthasar says about one of the Christian tradition’s great monastic or lay writers, mystics or theologians. I hope this interest of mine is not surprising. I am, as you will know by now if you have reading me at this site over the past year and more, a comparative theologian, and I spend a good part of my time studying classical Hindu literature. To some, surely, this means that my tastes are liberal. But in fact, my study of India has only deepened my respect for our classical tradition, and so too for solid, serious, deep theologians such as von Balthasar among the Catholics, and Karl Barth among the Protestants.
I mention this because I have felt the need, for weeks now, to say something about the recent Vatican decision to bar Roger Haight, SJ from teaching and writing. I am sure you know about the case against his Jesus Symbol of God and the Notification several years back. Since then Fr Haight, moved from teaching at the (then) Weston Jesuit School of Theology, has continued his writing, and also taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a Protestant seminary. But now, he is barred from further theological writing and from teaching, even at Union. The reason, it seems, is that he is not willing to recant and disown what he wrote in Jesus Symbol of God.
Now, as I have just said, it is von Balthasar I love to read, and he is the one I find inspiring to me in my interreligious, comparative theology. While I admire the solidity and clarity of Fr Haight’s writing, Jesus Symbol of God but also his other works too, it is not the kind of theology that helps me very much in the work I do. I also recall that when Fr Haight’s book came out, it quickly became a hot topic in theology, and the early reviews of it were quite varied, some positive, and some quite critical of this or that aspect of the book. I recall hearing Fr Haight speak about reactions to the book at the Catholic Theological Society annual meeting one year. Even at that point, there were some 25 or 30 reviews of it (the author in me dies of envy), and many of them engaged in the academic delight and duty of giving Fr Haight a hard time. I have taught the chapter of it on world religions in my classes, first at Boston College, and now at Harvard, and while there are things I admire greatly in the chapter, both my students and I found cause to quarrel with the book and the way in which Fr Haight explains the relation of Christ, Christianity, and the world religions.
I think the mixed reaction to the book was a fine thing, and am fairly sure that Fr Haight himself had no problem with it. Such are the ups and downs of academe, and it is through this critical exchange, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, that our work gets done. < br /> And so I was disappointed years ago by the investigation of the book and its author, by his dismissal from the seminary faculty, by the Notification, and now by this silencing. Even though I do not agree with all that Fr Haight wrote, I thought the academic give and take was the best way to sift out the good and the bad, what would endure and what would be forgotten, in Jesus Symbol of God. The Notification was quite clear; the issues were known and widely discussed. I had hoped that with this clarity we had all moved on, Fr Haight to other writings, and the rest of us to our own ways of reflecting on Christ today, wiser by this whole experience. But silencing?
Silencing is a terrible, awesome thing. In Hinduism, for millennia it has been a way of spiritual discipline, a hard practice by which a sage (muni) goes down inside herself or himself and finds still deeper and more lasting insights into reality, Reality. Such sages, by their austere penance of silence, were known to build up a terrible inner heat — tapas — which could erupt at the most unpredictable moment. Perhaps Fr Haight, who has taken the silencing with seeming equanimity, will likewise accumulate tapas for all of us. Global warming, indeed.
But on the larger scale, there are two things I really want to say. First, silence is one thing, being-silenced another. It is true that I have no inside information on the Vatican, no connections, no influence, and cannot pretend to speak as an expert on Vatican matters, and it is not my place to imagine telling Rome what to do. But it does seem to me counterproductive to have silenced Fr Haight at this point, all the more drawing attention to him and his work. He shall be remembered forever, in theological circles, for this event too. Perhaps there are places in the Church where the silencing will produce a desired caution and even fear in theologians, but here in the United States, my guess is that it is mainly the Vatican that comes off looking bad; such is our media , and how we instinctively take sides with the underdog in disputes like this. Correct me if I am wrong in guessing this outcome. It would have been better, wise, kinder, more productive, more charitable, to let Fr Haight write what he wants, and teach at Union, letting the rest of us, who do really care about Jesus and his meaning for us, judge whether he is to be in our bibliographies and on our reading lists or not. Silencing simply interrupts and delays the necessarily slow process of making up our minds on his writing; there is simply no way to substitute for the learning each of us must do, sooner or later.
Second, and although, again, I really do love reading von Balthasar and will go back to reading him and (for a course) the Hindu theologian Ramanuja (about whom I wrote in Advent) once I am finished writing this blog, I am all the more and endlessly edified by Roger as intellectual, writer, teacher, Jesuit. He wrote what he thought, in simple and austere honesty, working out his ideas step by step. He wrote, as he saw it, for the Church and for his students. It is, I am sure (though guessing), impossible in his eyes to take it back, to recant, to change what he wrote. And so, without ‘going public’ with denunciations to the press or media campaigns or inflammatory websites, etc., Roger has simply accepted this austerity of silence. As if to say, without saying, something like this: “I accept the decision of the Vatican, I will be silent. I cannot unwrite what I wrote or unthink what I thought, but neither is it my place to change the rules so late in the game. I stand by my book, and I will not speak.” In this way, Roger, whose ideas I share only somewhat, is all the more one of my intellectual heroes. We need to think and write honestly, as if everything is at stake, no matter what the cost. Roger’s doing this, and taking all this so seriously (as has the Vatican, to be sure), upgrades the value of what all theologians do, and reminds us of what is at stake in our daily thinking, writing, praying, teaching. It is important enough to fight about, and to suffer for.
I do hope the silencing ends soon, even as Roger’s tapas, the fruit of his silence, sets us all ablaze. But for now, what he does not say has become the most eloquent way for him to keep teaching us.
Addendum: Although I always read your comments (thanks for them!) I respond to neither the positive nor the negative, since such back-and-forth seems not to be part of this genre. But this time I recommend that readers look at Fr. Imbelli’s suggested link, and also at Ms Disco’s helpful update on Fr Haight’s situation, with reference in turn to Prof Paul Lakeland’s essay in Commonweal. (And while I am at it: in his brief comment, Mr Austin asks about the criticisms against Fr Haight’s book; with such in mind, I had already included the link to the Notification, which amply sets forth the concerns.)